The novella is set in fictional rural Clay County, Mississippi, home to the Ponders, the richest family in the county. Daniel Ponder, a "mildly retarded man" according to literary scholars, is the heir to his father Sam Ponder's wealth. As Daniel generously gives away his possessions, including a gas station and heirloom watches, his father and his niece, Edna Earle Ponder, try to save their family fortune by having Daniel institutionalized to a psychiatric hospital.
When Sam instead of Daniel is institutionalized by accident, the two try to have Daniel marry Teacake Magee, an eligible widow. The marriage only lasts two months. Daniel later marries 17-year-old Bonnie Dee Peacock, and Daniel's father dies of a heart attack when he hears of the proposal. Bonnie runs away, and later returns to Daniel's house. She dies mysteriously on a stormy night.
The Peacocks, under the advice of district attorney Dorris Gladney, indict Daniel on murder charges. He convinces the judge he is innocent, and gives away the remainder of his riches to all present at the trial, including the Peacocks.
The novella is narrated through the perspective of Edna Earle.